Niceman Cometh Flyers Goalie Ron Hextall Has Mellowed Since His Earlier, Fiesty Years Hexy Growing With His Kids

Posted: April 23, 1996

The lesson is about losing. It's OK to cry, Ron Hextall tells his oldest son, Brett. It's OK to make mistakes, and to want desperately to win. It is not OK, he tells his 8-year-old, to pout, to smash things, to carry a loss around on your shoulders as if it were a block of ice.

``He comes home from a hockey game they lost and he's all upset,'' the Flyers' goalie says. ``And I'm like, `Brett, what does it matter?' ''

The irony is not lost on the father. Losing always has mattered to him. Losing always has worn like a block of Antarctica on Ron Hextall's shoulder, especially in the playoffs. In losing, he has smashed sticks and even people, and at times brooded like, well, an 8-year-old.

But that was before parenting hit his head like a Lindros slap shot, before his emotions began to erode his self-esteem rather than build it up. Now, Ron Hextall says, he walks away from a loss like Sunday's overtime crusher when he walks away from the rink.

``I think for Ron, a lot of the learning experience has been seeing himself through Brett,'' says Diane Hextall, Ron's wife. ``Sometimes you see yourself through your kids, and you can grow from that.

``They teach you who you really are, that's for sure.''

* The father of four, Ron Hextall is two Fridays away from turning 32, and nine years beyond a rookie season he has spent his career running after - and running from. He never has come as close to a Stanley Cup as he did that year. He never has come as close to impressing the league with his play, either.

He won the Vezina Trophy as the league's best goaltender that season, an honor voted on by NHL general managers. He was named the Conn Smythe winner as the playoff MVP, even though Edmonton defeated the Flyers in seven games for the Stanley Cup.

This season, he tied with Detroit's Chris Osgood with the best goals-against average (2.17), his second consecutive season with a GAA under 3.00. Statistically, they are his best two seasons as a pro, better even than that 1986-87 rookie season.

Then, he was the brash emblem of a brash franchise, his stick-handling ability setting new standards for goaltenders, his feistiness doing the same. Hextall received a total of more than 300 penalty minutes in his first three seasons, each year breaking or tying a record for his position. He hacked at any leg within the zip code of his crease. He wanted so badly to win that he often shot himself and his team in the skates with emotional charges at players, or wayward pucks.

In doing so, he alienated just about anybody who was not a Flyer. Although his penalty time has decreased drastically since, it affects appreciation of him even today. He is the Claude Lemieux of goaltenders. ``There are tons of people out there who do not like me,'' he says. ``I'm seen as an antagonist, and I understand that.''

By the numbers, the GMs should vote him the Vezina Trophy winner as the league's best goaltender. The reality is that he won't even finish in the money. His numbers are discounted around the league like Canadian money. Hextall is seen as a benefactor of his young defense, and not the other way around.

In a recent Sports Illustrated article, two unnamed GMs dismissed his chances at the Vezina out of hand. ``If you look around the league and you start counting down No. 1 goalies, I think you would have to get well into the teens before he'd be maybe a consideration,'' says former Islanders GM Don Maloney.

And Maloney once traded for the guy. A surprise Eastern Conference finalist with Glenn Healy in the nets in 1992-93, the Isles acquired Hextall from Quebec to get them to the next step. Hextall responded with another strong season in '93-94 that included a 3.08 GAA and five shutouts, including two during the Isles' frenzied, late-season rally to make the playoffs. But he flopped miserably as the Rangers swept the Islanders in the first round. Within a week, his reputation as a playoff warrior was obliterated. Maloney - citing his disgruntled fans - banished him from Long Island in a trade with the Flyers. One season later, Maloney too was banished.

``Some of the goals he would give up, he'd be 40 feet out of the net,'' Maloney says now. ``Guys would be shooting at the open net and the fans would be like, `Oh, no . . . ' That's the imprint on the mind. It's not the 40 saves he made up to that point.''

Two years after giving him up to Quebec as part of the Eric Lindros trade, the Flyers reacquired Hextall (the Islanders threw in a draft pick) for Tommy Soderstrom. What they did not reacquire were the high-strung histrionics that had led to three fighting suspensions and the infamous mugging of Chris Chelios in his first go-round with the Flyers. In its place was this current edition of the man: a Yodalike locker-room presence, talking softly while carrying a big stick.

Blame it all on maturity, Hextall says.

``My kids haven't seen anything happen because not much has happened since they remember,'' he says. ``But I've already talked to them about things I've done. I don't want them to think their dad is a saint on the ice. I think one of the crimes of life is that we grow up and think our parents are perfect. And then all of a sudden, one day when we get old enough, we realize . . . ''

Hextall's father, Bryan Hextall Jr., was the model for his son's fiery play. He was not necessarily the model for his fatherhood.

``I love him, but he wasn't the greatest dad,'' he says. ``He didn't spend that much time with us. And yet when I grew up I thought he was like God . . . And then I get to the point where I realize he'd rather be in the bar with his teammates. He came to one of my hockey games all year one year. You start seeing this stuff and you realize, `My dad is not God.' It's a shock of reality.''

Says Diane: ``Ron was incredibly sensitive even as a child. If his dad raised his voice to him, it would break Ron's heart. So as competitive as he was, he had the other side, too. He wasn't this coldhearted ogre that people think he is. He was always very sensitive . . . ''

``I probably was like Brett when I was a kid,'' Hextall says. ``When we lost, I probably lost it. I probably cried. And you know what? I'm a male, but I've got nothing against my little guy crying . . . That's dealing with it. Just don't let it ruin the rest of your day. Don't bring the people down around you.''

Those are lessons Hextall says he needed to learn first, and it has been the key to his strong second life with the Flyers. ``I handle a loss better now than when I was young,'' he says. ``I get upset when we lose, but I don't let yesterday's loss affect me for the next game. I have a better balance now than the old days.''

Says Diane: ``I don't think you can say he's a denial person. He looks at himself honestly. He takes the blame, he takes responsibility. Sometimes to a fault.''

* Playing a position where, according to coach Terry Murray, the distance between heaven and hell is a ``tenth of an inch,'' Hextall is yards from greatness. Like his father - and unlike his grandfather, Bryan Sr. - he does not have his name etched into a Stanley Cup, and time is running out. As Maloney says, the league is in love with the Osgoods and the Puppas and the Brodeurs.

Outside of Philly, Hextall's nifty regular-season statistics induce little awe now. Instead, the blips - like Claude Lemieux's 55-foot slap shot in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals last year - define him. Hextall says he doesn't care what anyone other than his teammates or his management think, but the Flyers think their goalie is getting a raw deal from the league.

``I don't care what the other GMs in the league say, we know what we've got in Hexy,'' Murray snaps. ``He's played outstanding hockey for us. He brings intensity, he brings discipline, he brings poise, he brings composure to the game. He brings a real meaning to our hockey club.''

The Flyers' view of Hextall is the polar opposite of the NHL's Greek chorus. He makes the Flyers better, not the other way around. His is the wise-old head among the Flyers' young defense, and an extra stick-handler in defending the power play and breaking from the zone.

``He makes it easier for a young defenseman to play,'' says young defenseman Karl Dykhuis. ``He moves the puck so well. If you had another goalie there, we'd be in trouble a lot of times.''

Says Chris Therien: ``He never yells at his defensemen. For all you've heard or read about his intensity on the ice, he never displays that same kind of intensity about a mistake with his defensemen. Never, ever. Nothing but support.''

Says Murray: ``He adds a lot of those ingredients that I think were missing on the ice and in the dressing room when I got here. And his goals-against average - those numbers don't lie.''

Maybe not. But Hextall is among those who say they exaggerate his importance a bit. ``If I were on a lot of other teams, my stats wouldn't be anywhere near what they are right now,'' he says. ``This is an ideal team for me to play for. That's what the critics see, too. They say, `His numbers are good because he plays with a great team.'

``But Patrick Roy played with a great team for 10 years, too. It's still hard to be a great hockey player for a long time.''

* Ten years ago, Ron Hextall was considered a great - if eccentric - goaltender. Now ``solid'' is often attached to his name. He has been a solid goaltender for a long time - his whole career, in fact.

Maybe it's not as hard as being great for a long time.

Or maybe it's a little bit harder.

Either way, Hextall seems genuinely at peace with it all now. No matter what happens this spring.

And the kids? Brett Hextall still takes his losses hard, but it may be their 10-year-old daughter Kristin, says Diane, who has received the highest concentration of the old man's DNA. A soccer player, she recently caused an opponent to cry when she accidentally bashed a kick off her face.

``I'm thinking Kristin is going to be crying that she hurt this girl,'' Diane says. ``But Kristin said, `Well, if her head wasn't on her shoulders, I would have scored.' ''

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